August 6, 1999, Sacramento, CA
Rehearsals: July 23-August 6
On long plane trips I often reflect on the world underneath me. My trip to Japan for the tenth 10-Piano Concert in Matsumoto was no exception. Here I was, on my umpteenth trip to Japan, this time accompanied by four young students brimming with excitement and anticipation as they looked forward to participating in the concert. They are children of privilege. They all have grand pianos and parents willing and able to support their piano study with their time and their money. Their lives are filled with many other opportunities as well. Having been born during World War II and grown up with struggling young parents just after the war, I can look at the lives of these children with some envy.
Then I thought about other children much less fortunate than I had been. NATO had recently begun the bombing of Serbia, where thousands of homeless refugees were roaming the countryside, more often than not with children at their sides. And this image, fresh in my mind from TV news reports, began to mingle with other images of so many of the world's children living in poverty and in various forms of distress and despair. Dr. Suzuki's vision of world peace is, truly, a long way off. It is a dream which seems impossible in our real world.
On the flight home was the news of the school shooting in Denver, and then shortly after I arrived home in Rochester I heard a report on public radio about chemical and biological weapons. The reporter referred to the "Iraqi Biological Weapons Program." I was reminded that I call my piano studio a "Suzuki Piano Program," and that every individual in the whole world devotes him or herself to some sort of "program" when they get up out of bed every day. I feel thankful for my program, both for myself and on behalf of my students. I know for certain that life, in all its aspects, is better in a Suzuki Piano Program than in a Biological Weapons Program. I feel thankful that I was able to choose my program, and that no other program is forced upon me.
Some may argue that there could be no areas of peace and privilege in the world if it were not for the existence of military strength and economic power. I like to believe what Dr. Suzuki taught, that without aesthetic sense ALL of the human race would be mired in despair and destruction. Art is the only thing left after a civilization dies away. Some philosophers have written that art is the way humans have of reaching out toward our ideals, which are embodied in our concept of God or of heaven. Art is the pathway which leads us in the direction of God. Art exists in the human soul, and we all have a soul. Therefore, we all have the potential to realize and to develop our aesthetic sense.
Reflecting on all the negative aspects of human life and of modern life in particular, I am concerned for my students. The world is too full of danger. But as I look at each one of them, on the way to Japan, consumed with the effort of making beautiful music with children whose ancestors not so long ago fought to the death with their own ancestors, I am somewhat less afraid for them personally. They have become strong in their pursuit of their art. They have already acquired good values. They will avoid violence. They are a positive influence on their environment.
With every new generation, we adults have the opportunity to re-invent human existence. I felt, as I often feel, that there is no greater or more important task on earth than to educate children. Despite the rigor of the traveling and the stress of participating in the concert, I returned home with renewed energy and sense of purpose. I often hear Kataoka Sensei's words in my mind:
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This was the first time my son Brandon and I went to Matsumoto. I wasn't sure what to expect but we both had an incredible time. Brandon stayed with a wonderful family, the Ohwa family, so I knew he was well taken care of. I stayed at the Buena Vista Hotel with two other teachers, Judy Wely and Winnie Ling. We didn't know each other but quickly became friends and were together all the time. The day after we arrived in Matsumoto was a free day and we explored Matsumoto and went to Matsumoto Castle. The American students had private lessons with Dr. Kataoka and other teachers for the next two days. The lessons were held at the Talent Education Institute. It was so exciting to actually be at the school. I took several pictures of the building and the statue of Dr. Suzuki with the two children. The group practices began on Friday. I can't believe how beneficial it was to watch the rehearsals. I've heard Dr. Kataoka say all of these things for years but each time I hear her I understand on a deeper level, then it becomes clearer and can be incorporated into my teaching. These are a few of the things I wrote down:
Brandon and I were both sad to leave Matsumoto. He came home so motivated! He is practicing like crazy! I came home motivated to be a better teacher. The first thing I did when I got home (after recovering from jet lag) was to go out and buy Rubinstein's recording of Andante Spianato & Grand Polonaise Brillante, Op. 22. This was the last piece performed on the 10 Piano Concert. I listen to it every night. It makes me think of the time we spent in Matsumoto.
Thank you Dr. Kataoka!
I had such a wonderful time in Matsumoto! I stayed with the Ohwa family while I was in Japan. Ben Stocking from Washington stayed with them also. They made us feel very welcome in their home. Mrs. Ohwa is a great cook and I looked forward to every meal!
Even though we were in Matsumoto 18 days the time went by so fast because we did so many things. I practiced at least 3 hours every day. One day we all met the Mayor of Matsumoto and took a tour of Matsumoto Castle. We went to museums and saw beautiful cherry blossom trees in Suzaka and Obuse. Mr. Ohwa took Ben and me to Art Hills and a Wasabi farm on a day the Gigue group wasn't practicing. On two other free days I met my mom (she stayed in a hotel with other teachers) and we went shopping and had fun walking around.
I learned a lot from each rehearsal. I learned we need to do more hands separate repetitions to make sure playing the piece is effortless. I also learned we have to listen carefully to each other to make 10 pianos sound like 1. It was exciting seeing Harmony Hall for the first time. On the day before the concert we had our dress rehearsal there. It was so exciting playing in the concert.
It was sad our time in Japan was almost over. The next day my mom and I and a few others went to Tokyo for a quick day of sightseeing. We left Matsumoto next day. The families and teachers including Dr. Kataoka came to the train station to say good-bye to all of us. It was fun on the train talking to all of my new friends. I can't wait until the next 10-Piano Concert in Matsumoto!! I definitely want to go back!!
Although I do not understand Japanese, music and teaching music is truly an international language. After watching the lessons and rehearsals, I began to understand what Kataoka Sensei was trying to convey to the students, as well as to the parents. After the rehearsal, she talked to the parents on how to practice the area the students needed to improve. In the future, I will strive to increase this parent-teacher communications. Sometimes, I am so busy with "my teaching" and giving assignments that I neglect to explain to the parents what was going on during the lesson. I would like to quote Karen Hagberg, "The learning miraculously seems to snowball," meaning that I learned something new at each Ten-Piano Concert.
For the American students who participated in the concert, the experience of the daily rehearsals, new friends they made, and the cultural interaction with the host Japanese family, rather than playing in the concert itself, will most probably be etched in their minds forever.
Before I went to Japan, I was worried about understanding the language. I had no problem with the language because most Japanese people understood English and the rest of the time you could point to communicate. I worried for no reason!
I had a good time going sightseeing. I especially liked shopping. Japan has cool shops because they are like tents. The shops are individual buildings and often they have no doors. I bought gifts for my whole family in the shops.
I hope other students want to go to Japan in the future, for it was a great experience. I earned all of my own money to go to Japan and other students can do the same! It was definitely worth all my hard work.
For the second time, I had the opportunity to travel to Matsumoto, Japan this spring for two and one half weeks of rehearsals followed by two concerts. The first time two students and a parent accompanied me. This time, one 13-year old student went with me.
When I was thinking of who to ask to go, I decided this time to take only one student with no accompanying parent. I decided this because in November, 1996, there were many students and their parents who accompanied their teachers. Everyone was graciously hosted in Japanese homes, but I could see that the Japanese were overburdened with so many people to take care of. Plus, the American students have a wonderful growing experience going without Mom or Dad.
Many of my students wanted to got to Japan with me. But I chose carefully who to take. I took someone who I knew was well-trained with good manners, and who would be thoughtful and flexible in new situations. The Japanese are very gracious hosts who give a great deal to us American guests and I think we owe them a student who will be respectful and pleasant.
My other priority was to take someone who was working here in the states to improve her technical and listening ability at the piano, meaning she could start her piece anywhere, one hand alone, made an effort to carry her arms over the keyboard, and had plenty of experience of good practice. We were given a new piece in December, so we had to really "hit it" to be ready for Japan. We both took it on as a positive challenge and practiced in the lessons. I took a student who honestly admits that she hates to practice, but I think she experienced the rewards of her efforts in getting ready for the concert in Japan. She had a very positive experience and learned that a little effort in everyday practicing gives great rewards in the future. As a teacher, I could hope for no more for a student.
As most of you know, 18 American students and their teachers attended the Ten-Piano Concert in Matsumoto, Japan on May 2, 1999. I was one of those chosen by her teacher to perform, and I would like to tell you about the experience I had.
I started packing and buying gifts for my host family three weeks prior to leaving for my trip to Japan. The day finally came when it was time to leave. My family and I drove down to San Francisco to catch an 11:15 flight to Tokyo. I was very excited, for I had never been away from my family before. The plane ride was lots of fun, and we finally arrived in Tokyo after ten and one half hours excited, but exhausted. We then, along with other Americans, boarded a bus and took a five hour ride to Matsumoto. There our host families greeted us and took us home.
Katie Shrader, who is 12 years old and lives in Lincoln, Nebraska, shared a homestay with me. In our Japanese family there was a father, mother, two brothers, sister, and grandparents. They treated us very well. The grandmother brought us tea twice a day. We enjoyed the food very much. They tried very hard to make foods that they thought we would like. The father spoke more English than the mother or youngest brother, but we were still able to get along just fine with the use of our dictionaries when he was at work.
When we weren't playing the piano we had the opportunity to go shopping or touring. Some of the places we went included visiting the mayor, Matsumoto Castle, the school of our little sister, a wasabi farm, a glass company, museums, and going on a picnic. We especially liked the school because they were so interested in us. They wanted to hold our hand and touch our hair! We thought that was funny. They were so nice to us and even waited on us at lunch time.
We spent lots of time practicing the piano, sometimes three hours a day, but we made it fun by helping each other. We both had lessons with Dr. Kataoka and Mrs. Fujiwara. We had rehearsals every other day and while we waited for our turn we would play games or do homework. And of course there were interpreters available for us. Recital day was very long, lasting from nine in the morning till seven at night because there were two performances. We spent our time watching movies, talking, and playing cards. They gave us lunch and we had lots of snacks. All of our hard work paid off because everybody played their pieces well and the audience loved it!
Before I left, I wasn't planning on playing in this summer's Ten-Piano Concert in Sacramento because I didn't want to spend the time practicing, but now I know that all of the hard work pays off in a good way. If any of you are thinking about taking the trip to Japan, don't pass it up, it is a great opportunity!
Piano is an instrument fit for a king! It enables us to do complicated things all at once. It is important to take care of all the precise details in the beginning. A five-year-old learns good reading skills before actually reading a note, just as he or she can speak perfectly before having any grammar lessons. By the age of 10, children can have the skill of reading music and they can actually play it if they have learned with their entire bodies.
The first requirement for teaching reading well is that teachers themselves must study.
What I mean by reading is to play correctly before reading a single note. My blind student is reading now. When he grows up and begins to use Braille he will realize that he already has the skill of reading. For example, he knows that an eighth note is half the weight of a quarter note. So if an eighth note is 5 grams, the quarter note is 10 grams, the sixteenth note is 2.5 grams, and it takes four sixteenth notes to equal a quarter note. Teaching these things is to teach reading.
The first requirement for teaching reading well is that teachers themselves must study. They cannot teach students what they cannot do themselves, because children learn by physical experience and not by explanations or information. What the teacher demonstrates is what the students learn.
TIME SIGNATURE & RHYTHM: The first thing to notice in any piece is the time signature. Remind yourself and remind students as they play, "It's 3/4, 3/4, 3/4." Keep telling the students this, and in ten years they will understand. It is the same as teaching good manners. Just keep telling them for a long time. It is the only way to really teach children. It does not work if you just tell them a couple of times. Children can take in only a little information at a time. It takes a long time to teach important things. The fundamentals must be taught so that good results can be seen in all of the students in your studio. The speed of the students' progress may be different because of different family situations, time factors, etc. But even a student who does not have time to practice will blossom at age 14 or 15 and can take off from there. It is not important for all of the students to become advanced at an early age. Life is a long process. Students may play advanced pieces when they have the desire to do so if they have been taught the basics patiently over a period of years.
What the teacher demonstrates is what the students learn.
So the rhythm is a basic ability. I am not referring simply to counting 1-2-3-4. Even people who do not play piano can count 1-2-3-4. I mean HOW to play the first beat, HOW to play the second beat, HOW to play the third and fourth beats. Rhythm is not something that the performer creates. Rather, it already exists in the universe. The person who can read three beats correctly is the person who can "ride" naturally on this natural rhythm. We read the time signature by glancing at the score, but if we cannot play a rhythm with our bodies, we cannot really read the music. It easily takes ten years to be able to do it physically. The teacher must always mention whether the piece is in two or three beats as the student plays (4 beats and 6 beats are compounds of 2 and 3). In this way, we are educating the students' bodies.
If we ignore the time signature, we are not reading properly. If a student plays a reading piece and it sounds "dead" with no rhythm, we must immediately demonstrate the correct way. If we demonstrate well, they will be able to do it. The question becomes, "Can the teacher play 2-beat and 3-beat rhythm?"
Teachers must pay attention to this especially in advanced pieces. Never stop teaching rhythm in this way. Always pay attention to the student's body as much, or more than, to the piece itself. Failure to do this is why many teachers have difficulty teaching advanced repertoire.
LEGATO: We must always produce a musical sound on the piano. Legato is the most difficult thing to do. A legato line sounds like driving on a smooth road with no bumps or ditches. When two things collide there is always a shock. To make a musical sound, shock must be avoided. The piano key is designed so that the pianist may avoid this shock. It has depth in which to play without fighting with the performer's fingers. The piano, as an instrument, is perfectly designed. The fault lies with the human being playing it. If the performer pokes the keys, the piano screams for help!
How do we avoid a shocking sound on the piano? Use the fingers as if they were the soles of your feet, moving them as you "walk" along the keys, "taking" the sound into your hand. All great artists use their fingers perfectly in this way. Most teachers find this very difficult to do, however, since we were taught with a method which uses vertical finger motion. If you look at a score and see a slur and you cannot play legato, however, it means that you cannot read. To read means to be able to execute the sound requested by the score.
Be especially careful on legato repeated notes.
STACCATO: Not crashing! For many, staccato is not a musical tone. It is just noise. Simply playing at the right time is not enough either. It must be the right sound. The skill of reading includes how to play the piano properly. On the piano we only have to "jump" (staccato) or "walk" (legato). Teachers must teach the basics of staccato and legato.
USING THE BODY: To play a musical tone, we must keep our center of gravity and move naturally. This is also the best way to preserve our health, to sit and walk naturally, and to have the best table manners. We must hold the center of gravity naturally.
The arm starts from in the middle of the back, not at the shoulder. The back is the extension of the arm. If the back is stiff between the shoulders, this will make the arm and fingers stiff as well. The upper back is sustained by the lower body. The wrist does the same job in the arm that the hip does in the lower body. If the center(s) of gravity are maintained naturally, the fingers can do their job freely.
USING THE FINGERS: Our job is to teach children how to "walk" on the keys so that they may walk naturally and quietly with the fingers themselves and never shaking the wrists. The hand tends to become tense or stiff (just like the lower back) when children are told to do things in unnatural ways. The best teachers do not alternately raise and lower the wrists. If the wrists move in this way, you lose the freedom to use the pads of the fingers.
The palm and fingers cooperate with each other to do a good job. The fingers actually make little circles. Fingers which move stiffly up and down (like pistons) or move stiffly out and back on the same track, like swinging legs, are both unnatural. The circular motion must be accomplished by the finger by itself, and only a soft hand allows this to happen. The thumb moves sideways, opposite to the fingers. We must tell students constantly about moving the thumb correctly. The thumb is the most difficult finger to move correctly and next is the fifth finger. Students should be politely and constantly reminded to move these fingers. If these two move correctly, the other fingers have no problem.
CONCLUSION: Explanations are for parents, not the children. Parents must be taught what skills are to be valued, that memorizing a piece of music is not difficult, but to play it skillfully is very hard. Parents tend to think that when the child learns to read, they can read any piece and can play it. But it takes time. Just as a child learning the alphabet cannot yet read a newspaper, it will be a very long time before the piano student can really read well. Make sure the parents know that the important thing is to do a little reading every day. Tell them that Method Rose is not really for the purpose of reading. It is like a nursery book. You do not have the child read it; you read it to them. It has the same function.
Being able to understand the notes, time signature, etc. with the brain is easy. But can the students express everything that is written on a page of music? If they cannot express what they read on the instrument it means that they cannot really read. Teachers, please teach your students to read everything printed on the score and to be able to express it on the piano.
July 23-26 Rehearsals in private home
July 26 - Japanese students arrive
July 27 - Picnic for all students
July 28 - Trip to Tahoe
July 29 - Practice day "at home"
July 30-August 3 - Convention Center
August 4 - Convention Center Theater
August 5 - All day Dress Rehearsal
August 6 - Afternoon rehearsal
10-Piano Website: http://www.suzuki10-pianoconcert.org
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First Online Edition: 20 June 1999
Last Revised: 4 March 2012